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A Hostage to Her Memories

Gracia Burnham lost her husband and their life's work to Philippine rebels. A year later, she struggles to make peace with the past and future.

May 13, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ROSE HILL, Kan. — Gracia Burnham picked up her daughter's backpack and slung it across her shoulder. The memory hit with such force it knocked her back -- back a year, back to the jungle.

For a moment, she was again a hostage, marching at gunpoint up a mountain -- filthy, famished, hauling uncooked rice in an old green pack. The flashback dissolved. She was again in Kansas. She continued walking toward her minivan.

Gracia Burnham does not let her memories haunt her. But she cannot erase that year of terror.

For 376 days, she and her husband, Martin, were held hostage by Muslim militants in the wilds of the Philippines. After months of failed negotiations, the Philippine Army staged a rescue raid last June. In the chaos, the soldiers shot and killed Martin. Gracia returned alone to their three children to face the challenges of a very different world.

It's been a year now, and the Burnhams are still struggling to accept their new life here, under the broad prairie sky. They miss the father, the husband they buried. They ache for a home left behind.

Martin Burnham was a missionary pilot, delivering mail and supplies to those who spread the Gospel in the Philippines. The kids grew up flying in their dad's red and white Cessna to the mahogany forests or the beaches, to mountain villages brushed by clouds. They rode motorbikes to the waterfall. In the warm dusk, they played soccer with their parents.

Life here is different. It feels splintered.

"There's always some place to run off to," Gracia said -- a game, a practice, a lesson. "Americans stay busy all the time. There's no end to it."

Mindy, 13, misses helping her mom make homemade pizza from scratch. They don't seem to have time in Kansas.

Zach, 12, misses the river. He misses his inner tube. "I don't fit in here," he said. "I'm different."

During the year his parents were held captive, Jeff, 16, taped all his football games. He couldn't wait to show them to his dad. Now, he says, sports are stupid. All he wants is to learn to fly.

The Burnhams have all they need in Kansas -- more than they ever had before. The community of Rose Hill built them an airy brick house on Primrose Lane. A local dealer donated a new Dodge Caravan. Just the other day, landscapers came by, unbidden, to lay down sod. Gracia is grateful. But she also feels disoriented.

She and Martin dedicated their lives to serving others. Now, she is the one being served. Strangers have bought them furniture, cooked them meals. Gracia says she feels "humbled." And so alone.

"All kinds of people say, 'If you ever need anything, call me.' But that doesn't take care of the loneliness in my heart."

She folds the laundry. She buys the groceries. She goes shopping for antiques with friends. Now and then, though, she longs for the quiet she had in the Philippines, the time to reflect and to pray. She drives to the Wal-Mart parking lot and sits alone, singing hymns.

"Do I wish Martin were here? Of course I do," she said. "But the truth is, he's better off than we are. Why would he want to come back here? To pay the bills? To take out the trash?"

Gracia has kept the notes she and Martin wrote during their captivity on any scrap of paper they could scrounge -- once, even, on a leaf.

Martin jotted lists of chores awaiting him back home. Gracia wrote out recipes. Martin described the heavy chain his captors used to lock him to a tree each night. Gracia wrote of the sores that plagued her mouth.

She has preserved the ragged journal entries in protective plastic sleeves. They're in a drawer with the candy wrappers Martin held to his nose when he felt dizzy from hunger.

A year ago, on May 3, she wrote: "My tongue hurts. The dried fish is very salty. Miss my family so much I hurt."

On May 10, Martin added: "First night in three we've been outside. Hope it won't rain. Hope for some more food."

"It can be a shock," Gracia said, "to remember."

Nightmarish Odyssey

Martin and Gracia Burnham were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary at a Philippine resort when three men pointing M-16s burst into their beach cabin at dawn. It was May 27, 2001.

Herded onto a speedboat with 18 other hostages, the Burnhams learned they were captives of the Abu Sayyaf, a guerrilla force fighting a "holy war" against the Philippine government.

Their captors described themselves as "the Osama bin Laden group"; that name meant nothing to the Burnhams at the time. The guerrillas said their goal was to build a pure Islamic state, like the Taliban in Afghanistan. Failing that, they explained, they'd like to go to America and find jobs.

So began a nightmarish odyssey. On the run from the Philippine Army, the Abu Sayyaf marched their captives through the jungle after dark. Martin was handcuffed most of the time. Gracia was ordered to haul ammunition for the terrorists.

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